A top Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department official forwarded emails with jokes containing derogatory stereotypes of Muslims, blacks, Latinos, women and others from his work account during his previous job with the Burbank Police Department, according to city records.
Tom Angel, who is Sheriff Jim McDonnell's chief of staff, sent the emails in 2012 and 2013 when he was the No. 2 police official in Burbank, hired to reform a department reeling from allegations of police brutality as well as racism and sexual harassment within its ranks.
"I took my Biology exam last Friday," said one of the forwarded emails, which were obtained under the state's public records law. "I was asked to name two things commonly found in cells. Apparently 'Blacks' and 'Mexicans' were NOT the correct answers."
Another email ridiculed concerns about the racial profiling of Muslims as terrorism suspects. A third included the subject line, "How dumb is dumb?" and listed 20 reasons "Muslim Terrorists are so quick to commit suicide," including "Towels for hats," "Constant wailing from some idiot in a tower" and "You can't wash off the smell of donkey."
In an interview, Angel told The Times he did not mean to embarrass or demean anyone and said it was unfortunate that his work emails could be obtained by the public under the state's records laws. Asked about the "Biology exam" email, which made light of high incarceration rates in some minority communities, he described himself as Mexican.
"Anybody in the workplace unfortunately forwards emails from time to time that they probably shouldn't have forwarded," Angel said. "I apologize if I offended anybody, but the intent was not for the public to have seen these jokes."
A longtime sheriff's official, Angel arrived in Burbank in 2010 as part of a new leadership team consisting mostly of Los Angeles Police Department veterans. He rejoined the Sheriff's Department last year to work for McDonnell, who was elected in December 2014 on a promise to clean up the agency amid an FBI investigation into corruption and misconduct in the county jails.
McDonnell said he was disappointed by the emails but had no immediate plans to discipline Angel, since the messages predate Angel's current employment with the Sheriff's Department.
"Everybody's got their own take on humor. This was divisive and nonproductive," McDonnell said. "It's a shame the whole thing happened at all."
After viewing the emails at the request of The Times, local Muslim civil rights advocates criticized Angel, saying the messages perpetuate dangerous biases that all Muslims are terrorists.
"It's very concerning when they have such biases against the constituency that they have to police," said Haroon Manjlai, a spokesman for the greater L.A. chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
In a meeting with McDonnell and Angel on Monday, Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, sought assurances that sheriff's officials are not unfairly targeting Muslim communities. Angel should be disciplined and the Sheriff's Department should hold a meeting with community groups as well as hold cultural awareness seminars for its staff, Al-Marayati said.
FOR THE RECORD
4:55 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, as Al-Mayarati.
As a chief, Angel is an at-will employee and could be fired or demoted without the civil service protections of lower-ranking sworn personnel, a Sheriff's Department spokesman said.
The Angel emails echo recent controversies in other cities. In San Francisco and Ferguson, Mo., police officials who sent racially derogatory emails or text messages have been put on leave or fired.
Angel's Burbank emails were first released in 2014 in response to records requests filed by a Los Angeles attorney on behalf of a client. The Times recently learned of the requests, which sought various records, including four years' worth of emails to and from top-ranking Burbank police officials containing derogatory language about Islam, African Americans, Latinos and others. The attorney, Travis Poteat, did not return calls for comment.
The Times asked for the same records he obtained. In its response to the newspaper, the city did not initially include the emails forwarded by Angel until a reporter asked why they were missing. City officials said the emails were in a batch of records that were inadvertently overlooked.
In all but one case, the city redacted the names and addresses of Angel's email correspondents. A city spokesman said the redactions applied to anyone who did not work for the city because making their identities public would amount to an invasion of privacy.
Angel said he did not recall who sent him the original messages or who received his forwarded messages.
After learning of the emails in 2014, Burbank Police Chief Scott LaChasse audited police employees' emails for insensitive language, according to Interim City Manager Ron Davis, who managed the city's utility department at the time.
LaChasse did not find any problems, but he reminded all employees of the city's zero-tolerance policy for discrimination and harassment, saying more email audits would follow, Davis said. LaChasse declined to comment on whether he disciplined Angel over the emails, citing personnel privacy laws.
"They were not right, not to be condoned," LaChasse said. "There's nobody more contrite about it than Tom Angel. That's not a part of his DNA."
Angel declined to comment on whether he was disciplined but said he has never been the subject of an internal investigation for his conduct.
"Ask if there has ever been any kind of issue with my dealing with any minority communities in the history of my association with law enforcement, and you'll find there's been none," Angel said.
The union that represents Burbank police officers said the emails are offensive to women as well as ethnic and religious groups. In a written statement, the Burbank Police Officers' Assn.'s board of directors said city officials should hold LaChasse and his top administrators accountable.
"We find it extremely offensive that a high ranking member of our organization was engaging in what clearly appears to be misconduct," the board said. "There is no room for racism or discrimination of any type within the ranks of our organization."
On Jan. 7, 2012, records show, Angel forwarded an email that began, "Muslims, gotta love em can't punish em............?" before enumerating a series of terrorist incidents attributed to "devout Muslim male extremists." It then dismissed concerns about the racial profiling of Muslims.
Later that year, Angel registered for a conference hosted by the Sheriff's Department and Muslim community groups about countering violent extremism and dispelling myths about Islam, according to a city email. Three days later, Angel emailed Denis Cremins, a Burbank police captain, to ask what he called a "trivia question."
"How many virgins do muslims get in heaven? having a discussion with a friend and I know you know the answer …" Angel wrote.
"72," Cremins replied.
When asked about the exchange, Cremins told The Times he simply answered a question posed to him. He declined to comment further.
Because of a scheduling conflict, Angel did not attend the Muslim conference, according to emails.
Some terrorist groups have promoted the idea that Muslim "martyrs" who engage in suicide bombings and other violent attacks are given sensual rewards in paradise. But Muslim scholars have repeatedly said that suicide is forbidden in Islam and that there is nothing in the Koran promising 72 virgins.
Al-Marayati said Angel's question is "offensive on many fronts. Number one: He's promoting the extremist distortion of our faith. Number two: He's mocking our faith. Number three: He's marginalizing the community members he pledges to serve as a public servant."
Brian Moriguchi, president of the union that represents Sheriff's Department supervisors, said McDonnell should send a clear message to the community and sheriff's employees that "sending offensive, racial or derogatory emails is not appropriate and certainly not appropriate from a work computer."
McDonnell said the incident is "a teaching moment," showing that pressing the "send" button can have unintended consequences.
"If you were to ask a person, anybody who's familiar with Tom, he's professional and respectful of everyone he works with and deals with," the sheriff said. "His focus is on the best interests of constitutional policing in L.A. County."
Tchekmedyian writes for Times Community News.
Times staff writer Rubaina Azhar contributed to this report.